'Dog Soldiers' - Exploring Werewolf Horror
I have learned many things throughout the years where my love for horror grew. One of those things is that I am a huge fan of werewolves. From Universal's classic, The Wolf Man, to my personal favorite, An American Werewolf in London, I have discovered that werewolves can be truly horrifying if done correctly. For some reason, I have noticed that werewolves are used for action more often than they are used for horror. They are big, monstrous beasts, so in a way, I can understand that. However, the fact that they are normal human beings who lose control of their own bodies during a full moon and become murderous wolf-men is, to me, truly frightening. I am hoping to use this exploration series to share my thoughts on werewolf movies that work and werewolf movies that don't. I could have started with The Wolf Man or An American Werewolf in London, but, to be completely honest with you: the idea for this series didn't spawn in my brain until I started watching Dog Soldiers. Luckily, Dog Soldiers is a pretty good example of how werewolf horror can be good, so I am happy to be starting this series by talking about it.
Dog Soldiers, released in 2002, was written and directed by Neil Marshall, a man who went on to write and direct The Descent, which is a pretty solid claustrophobic horror film, in my opinion. Dog Soldiers follows a group of soldiers who are in a wooded area of Scotland performing military training operations. What they do not know, however, is that the woods are inhabited by a family of werewolves. Needless to say, they learn that fact the hard way.
To be honest, with a title like Dog Soldiers, I was expecting this movie to be a B horror movie with poor acting and even poorer CGI and blood effects. Thankfully, I was mistaken. Dog Soldiers, despite its ridiculous-sounding title, manages to be a solid entry in the werewolf sub-genre of horror. It starts off looking like it's going to be an intense war movie, but transitions into a claustrophobic survival-horror as the film progresses. There is plenty of action to go around, but the film still manages to be tense and quite suspenseful as we are left wondering when the titular werewolves will strike next. In a way, this film feels like the werewolf equivalent to 28 Days Later, yet more claustrophobic. There is an intensity to the film that made me think back to when I first watched the zombie flick––the intensity of the zombies in 28 Days Later, and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later, added to the horror. In the same way, the intensity of the werewolves in Dog Soldiers added to the horror aspect of the movie. They are fast-moving, and, just like the main characters in the movie, you never know where they will pop up next. I was surprised at how claustrophobic the film managed to be, given that it is a fast-paced movie about werewolves, creatures that are significantly larger than humans. However, thanks to the small cast and set, the film manages to pull it off. It's no wonder why The Descent was also able to feel so claustrophobic.
See that image above? That's what creatures in this film look like, and I must say, they look pretty damn good. Created using practical effects and some digital touch-up, these creatures look fabulous on camera and tower over the human characters. I am so impressed by how good these creatures look. There weren't many full-body shots, but when there were––like the one above––I couldn't help but let my jaw drop. The fact that they look so realistic adds to the horror. I'm not scared of obviously digital monsters––the practical stuff is what really spooks me. This was 2002, a time when filmmakers thought CGI was the answer to many things. And, while CGI can help, it isn't always necessary, especially when you can use animatronics and suits to create a solid werewolf. Just ask Van Helsing: big CGI werewolves don't always look that great.
The gore is also pretty solid, most of the time. There is one scene where Wells––played by Sean Pertwee––gets cut and his guts are hanging out. Let me just put it this way: his cuts looked like jello––it made me hungry. Other than that, the blood effects were perfect for a movie about wolf-men killing humans. Again, the less CGI, the better.
Other Positives and Negatives
Although this review is mostly based on how well the film handles werewolves, the reviewer inside me also wants to talk about the rest of the movie.
The film has an entertaining enough cast of soldiers, although I couldn't tell you what each of their names is. The film tried––I'll give it that––but they all had a pretty generic soldier-look to them, so it was hard to follow exactly who was who. Even if it was difficult to tell who was who, they still partook in some pretty entertaining banter that added a sense of levity to the very tense film.
Speaking of characters, there is a captain––Captain Ryan––who is just a real dick, and the film shows us how much of a dick he is by having him shoot an innocent dog. From that moment on, I hated him, and was even more upset when he grew stronger by turning into a werewolf. I'd say he was a pretty solid side-villain, just because he killed an innocent dog. That bastard. There is also a woman in the film who initially saves the soldiers and brings them to the house where the claustrophobia begins. However, this woman––Megan––turns out to be a part of the werewolf family, but just hasn't turned yet... for some unexplained reason. That's one of my big negatives with the film, actually. The "turning" rules aren't fully established, therefore it can be really confusing when a so-called werewolf hasn't turned yet, even though there are other werewolves roaming around.
In the realm of negatives, the film opens with a very short scene showing a couple in the woods getting attacked by a werewolf. I felt that the only reason it was included was to set up the silver knife used to strike the killing blow on the final werewolf. In other words, it wasn't a very engaging scene, and it made me wonder why it took one blow from that one tiny knife to kill Werewolf Ryan when he already had a freaking sword in his chest.
As far as werewolf movies go, Dog Soldiers has solid practical effects and creepy, claustrophobic aspects that make it truly feel like a horror film rather than just another action movie. The film benefits from realistic-looking werewolves and gore effects.
Other than the few negatives I have, I would say that this is definitely one of the better werewolf films that I have seen. I highly recommend checking it out if you are a fan of practical effects and––of course––werewolves.
In terms of werewolves, I give Dog Soldiers a solid 9/10.
In terms of general filmmaking, acting, plot, and the sort––basically the non-werewolf aspects––I give Dog Soldiers an 8/10.
© 2020 Benjamin Wollmuth